Charter Hill Society Member Interview: Scott McDonald

The Charter Hill Society for the Social Sciences

Tell us about your position at the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) and why you took on the role.

My predecessor resigned rather abruptly and thus the ARF was leaderless for several months.  I had been semi-retired for two years but retained a lot of interest in the advertising and media measurement field, and I believed strongly that the ARF could help bring transparency and methodological rigor to the field; but, it could only do that if it was led by someone who was committed to the ARF’s original mission: to further the application of science to the study of advertising and marketing. The term “science” is very specific and implies standards of objectivity, regard for empirical results, willingness to question and overturn favored hypotheses, and accumulation of verifiable knowledge. Former U.S. Senator Daniel Moynihan used to say that you were entitled to your own opinions, but you were not entitled to your own facts.  I assumed the leadership of the ARF at a point in history when American leadership was questioning expertise and arguing that some are entitled to their own “alternative facts”.  The ARF stands staunchly against that proposition and for an evidence-based approach to the study of advertising and marketing.

What are some exciting research projects ARF has led?

We have many research initiatives each year that are developed directly out of the input from the 400 companies that comprise the ARF membership.  We literally ask each member to “vote with their dollars” to determine how we allocate research budgets against member priorities. Cross-platform measurement remains very difficult to do well, and it remains a top priority for our members.  This year we have three studies in progress related to this:

  • A study of the relationship between the duration of a video view (in seconds) and market outcomes (e.g. sales, activation measures, etc).  Decades of previous research indicate that the relationship is non-linear, that the biggest impact is in the early second and that after that there are diminishing returns. However, this study is now probing how this differs for different screens and attention contexts (e.g., smartphones, laptops, TV screens), measuring not only cognitive effects but market impact.

  • A proof-of-concept demonstration project on best practices for conducting randomized control trials (i.e., true experiments) to cross-platform ad campaigns using both digital and TV platforms.  Presently, experiments can be run within a single sign-on environment (e.g., Google, Facebook) but tend to break down or be difficult to execute across platforms. Because most marketing campaigns ARE cross-platform, our project focuses on solving for that.

  • A proposal to build out an ongoing “universe estimate” study that can help companies translate from samples of digital IDs (e.g., email address lists) to estimates of households or persons. Current practice tends to weight data to Census demographics, but the Census Bureau doesn’t collect data on the number of browsers used per person, the number of email addresses in a household, or the degree of sharing of Netflix or Amazon accounts within or across households.  So the industry needs better data to enable accurate shifting in scale from IDs to households to persons and back again. 

Our projects can seem fairly wonky and specialized, but they all strive to improve the practice of research across broad swaths of the industry.  We invite broad participation - including from academics - and peer review, transparency, and validity checks.

ARF has recently created ARF WIDE, a Workforce Initiative for Diversity and Excellence whose mission is to  “improve the quality and diversity of the future workforce available to the advertising, media and research/analytics industries.” What made this a high priority, and what do you hope to accomplish in the long term?

We started laying the groundwork for ARF WIDE about two years ago, but had to get approval to set up a 501(c)3 charitable foundation, so it took a bit of time. Its mission, to improve the quality and diversity of the future workforce, is a need that ought to be self-evident.  Many companies have voiced a desire to become more diverse - especially companies that need to be consumer focused since, after all, the American population itself is increasingly diverse.  Studies have shown that diverse companies perform better and are much more in touch, but they also show that change has come too slowly.  So, ARF WIDE is a program that invests in students from diverse (and disadvantaged) backgrounds, encourages them to complete school (through scholarship support), encourages them to explore careers in research, insights and data analytics (through access to ARF educational, mentoring and networking programs), and ultimately gives them real-world work experience through paid internships and apprenticeship placements in affiliated companies.  It is a very direct form of support for diversity, but of course it is something that only has effect over the long haul, student by student by student.

You have been a generous supporter of UC Berkeley for many years. How has your relationship with UC Berkeley informed ARF WIDE?  How can people support your initiative?

Attending UC Berkeley was transformative for me since it gave me access to so many promising areas of research and personal/professional development.  As the son of a truck driver father and factory worker mother, and as a first-generation college attendee, I am highly sensitive to the mission of the public university as a mechanism for social mobility, equalizing opportunities, and promoting meritocracy.  So, launching ARF WIDE was a natural extension of my own experience at Berkeley.  At the practical level, I also learned a lot in recent years, through my philanthropic involvement with the campus, about how financial aid programs work, about how endowed scholarships work, and so forth.  Anyone who wants to support our effort can go to and make a contribution!

What advice would you give to graduating students, especially during this time?

That’s a tough one since history shows that cohorts coming onto the labor market at times of acute recession tend to suffer long-term reduction in earnings and prospects.  I saw this happen a few times with students of mine at Columbia Business School who would have been recruited by companies upon graduation, but missed out because of bad timing and then never really got that chance again. So, for graduating undergraduates right now, I’d suggest trying to move onto some level of graduate training, or even a certification program that can improve your skill profile (for example, becoming more proficient in data science techniques). For those who want (or need) to go straight into the workforce, I wouldn’t be too fussy, but I would look for a position that would give an opportunity to develop skills you would like to exercise in the future.  Those might be analytic skills, creative skills, people skills - whatever.  Even if the specific application might not interest you that much, that first job is a chance to hone your skills and figure out what makes you happiest in your work. 

Scott McDonald '73 Sociology

Scott McDonald became the CEO and President of the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) in March 2017.  Prior to joining the ARF, he held senior research positions at leading global media companies, including 18 years at Time Warner and 14 years at Conde Nast, covering both the consumer and the advertising sides of the media business.  Throughout his career, Scott has kept a foot in both the academic and business worlds, teaching for five years at NYU and for 18 years at Columbia Business School..  He serves as an adviser to the Social Science Matrix Program at UC Berkeley, and is on the Board of the Population Reference Bureau.  An avid art lover, he also is on the board of the Brooklyn Academy of Music.  He holds an A.B. degree from UC Berkeley and a Ph.D from Harvard University.

As the son of a truck driver father and factory worker mother, as a first-generation college attendee, I am highly sensitive to the mission of the public university as a mechanism for social mobility, equalizing opportunities, and promoting meritocracy.
Scott McDonald